ECOS 39 (1): How many conservations?

Even amongst different categories of conservationists there are shades and scales of opinion – it’s not easy being green.   

Conservationists – lumping or splitting?

Around the time of the early years of ECOS, there was frequent talk of the ‘(nature) conservation movement’. BANC and ECOS were part of it. But, were we? Was there a conservation movement, nature or otherwise? Not really….

If this is puzzling, ‘nature or otherwise’ is the clue. There was something bigger, called the ‘environmental movement’ and quite often we were seen as part of that. But were we? Not really…. The truth is that this was wishful thinking: there was, and there is, no one movement, (nature) conservationist or environmental. There was, and there are, several.

This should not be a puzzle: both ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ are words with multiple meanings, and there has been plenty of discussion of them – especially the former. ‘Conservation’ is perhaps a little simpler, but has its troublesome moments, which are not avoided by quips like “Preserve or conserve:  it’s all jam to me”. To many people, it isn’t.

Almost inevitably, we categorise and separate types of thing. It is a very widespread phenomenon, far from confined to the conservation world.; and often it is an informative and helpful process. Amongst conservationists, for instance, is it not useful to know who your most likely colleagues are, who does and who doesn’t understand you, or who is likely to give you support?

Chris Park, in A dictionary of environment and conservation  (Oxford University Press, 2007), writes that ‘conservation’ is “the planned protection, maintenance, management, sustainable use and restoration of natural resources and the environment, in order to secure  their long-term survival. […]  Since the 1960s the word conservation has been used more widely to embrace the rational use of all natural resources.” Here seems to be a definition by which we can try separating people – some of whom call themselves conservationists, and others who do not – into those we would welcome into the fold, and others we would prefer to banish from it. The trouble is, the world is not so black-and-white.  Words and phrases evolve, and meanings spread. The same word can come to cover things so far apart that they are contradictory. (‘Sustainable’, for instance?)  This can be rather confusing.

Preparing for the tribes

The next issue of ECOS will explore some of the confusion, and will look at the types – the tribes, as they have been called – who bear the title ‘conservationist’. In preparation for this, try putting yourself, or a friend or colleague, on some of the following scales, any of which someone might use to distinguish Us and Them. 


Some conservation scales

These are some of the ways ‘nature conservationists’ might be distinguished and separated according to where they best sit on each of the following scales. I don’t intend that the scales are objectively or quantitatively comparable. They are examples only; they are not in a distinct sequence. They are not necessarily compatible. Some of the labels may need explanation. There are, of course, other ways of distinguishing types of nature conservationist.       



everything partakes of the divine



nothing is ‘divine’


the world we think    

we know is not reality



this world is reality


nature is distinct from humankind    



‘nature’ does not exist as a separate entity


we are apart from nature



we are a part of ‘nature’


the continuance of nature matters



it doesn’t matter


mankind is advancing           



mankind is regressing


what humans do is not ‘natural’



everything humans do is ‘natural’


aesthetics scores high




aesthetics is neutral


Individual, voluntary action is necessary to solve our problems



legislation and coercion are necessary


Nature has intrinsic value [there is no valuer]    



nature has instrumental value [given by humans]


science can/will solve our problems



[by itself] science cannot solve our problems


put scientists in charge    


scientists are only one group of contributors


don’t let scientists get involved


economic growth is necessary



economic growth is a major part of the problem


the task is to identify, emphasise, and protect reserves for nature   


the task is to deal with issues at an ecotopic or ecosystem scale          


the task is global


promote private reserves and resources for private use



promote public reserves and resources for collective use


honour and protect nature to show honour of a creator



there is no ‘creator’


conservation is an ethic



conservation is a profession


conservation is detached from politics   



conservation is subject to politics


nature conservation is a reflection of rural and outdoor values



it reflects all human habitat values


‘nature conservation’ has concerns largely independent of those of ‘environmentalism’   



‘nature conservation’ is part of ‘environmentalism’


nature conservation largely is concerned with macro-organisms



nature conservation is concerned with all organisms


nature conservation concerns ‘natural’ species and habitats



all organisms are of concern


animal [&c.] welfare is not part of nature conservation, and individuals are less important than species



animal [&c.] welfare and nature conservation share parts of the same foundation


conservation is founded on individual belief, conviction, and ethics



conservation is founded on scientific investigation, logic, and the argument of experts


conservation attitudes, concerns, and issues can be conveyed poetically



a formal, objective, language is needed


I have doubt




I have certitude


Long-term ECOS editor and adviser.              

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Spray, Martin “ECOS 39 (1): How many conservations?” ECOS vol. 39(1), 2018, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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